Door County, WI: Family+Friends+Fun

Ready, set, go … our next two stops of this 11-week trip would be the busiest yet! With an influx of friends and family (our parents from Arizona, aunt/uncle from Chicago, cousins from Florida/Michigan, and friends summering in Wisconsin), it was a wild and wooly ten days of activity, including kayaking around a submarine, riding a tractor bed across Lake Michigan to an island lighthouse, a private tour of a 800+-cow dairy farm, and a restaurant with goats grazing on the roof!

Door County is as far northeast as you can get in Wisconsin, a teeny-tiny peninsula of land sticking up in between Green Bay and Lake Michigan. Door County is a simple kind of place for people like “FIPs” who want to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life during the summer months. What’s a FIP? we wanted to know. Well, that is what Wisconsinites call their summer visitors: “F*-ing Illinois People.” But who could blame those poor FIP’s for wanting to share in all this endless outdoor recreation and relaxation?

Besides my brother Jeff and sister-in-law Nicole, who have been caravanning with us all month in their travel trailer, for this week we were also joined (via airplane) by my mom Kay (who grew up in Madison, WI) and stepdad Don. On top of that, for a few days we also had the company of my cousin John and his wife Judy, who also RV! “The Gang’s All Here!”

The Door County Trolley is the best way to orientate yourself to the many small and spread-out towns that make up Door County. They also have a number of specialty tours revolving around the three major food groups of Wisconsin: wine, beer and cheese. The Scenic Tour took us through Peninsula State Park, a gorgeous wooded oasis where we later returned for multiple rounds of hiking along the Niagara Escarpment, a cliff of rocks running through this area (and all the way to and through the famous Niagara Falls).

A unique opportunity exists in Peninsula State Park: “theater under the stars!” Northern Sky Theater is a small ampitheater set amongst the tall trees and soft breezes. For decades, they have produced original theatrical productions here! “Whatever Happened to Karl Janko?” was a hoot of a show with talented actors, singers and musicians playing multiple roles.

On another visit to Peninsula, we picnicked and then climbed Eagle’s Nest, a wooden viewing structure with a choice: climb the steps, or stroll the ramp! With two almost 80-year-olds in our group, we were grateful for options and a built-in excuse to take the easy way up.

A popular (dare I say … mandatory?) stop in Door County is Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant, or as it is better know, “that place with the goats on the roof.” Yep — real live goats graze (or on this day, just sit) on the grassy roof!

This began as a joke between two buddies, who would give each other extremely unique birthday gifts. One year, a live goat was left on Al’s sod roof, and a tradition was begun.

Now, it’s a tourist destination serving (amongst other things) Swedish meatballs with lingonberry jam, or as it is perhaps better known in our family, “a trip to the IKEA snack bar.” But regardless, it’s practically against the law to visit Door County without stopping at Al Johnson’s.

A visit to the Cana Island Lighthouse comes with options. Depending on the water level of Lake Michigan, the causeway leading to the island is frequently underwater, so they provide a tractor to take you on a bumpy ride there. But more intrepid and adventurous people often choose to brave the waves and walk anyway!

Check out how wet Jeff’s clothes are! That tells you all you need to know about which method of travel he chose. One of the waves went completely over his back!

Once on the island, visitors can climb the 125 steep steps up the interior of the lighthouse to the tippy top, or examine the living quarters (mom recognized a toaster from her youth!). This was surely a hard place to live, especially throughout the winter. One lighthouse keeper recalls looking out during the deepest part of winter to see a huge chunk of ice floating by, with a small boat frozen in the middle of it, with two small figures frozen dead in the middle of the boat. All he could do was watch helplessly as they floated out of sight.

My brother is an exceptional bowler (he’s shot eight — EIGHT! — perfect 300 games) and so we couldn’t miss a chance to experience Sister Bay Bowl — an ancient six-lane alley that’s so quaint you actually keep score with a pencil. No computerized scoring here! They also claim the finest in chicken or steak, which is surely a typo of the highest order.

We also took a historic tour of the tiny town of Ephraim.

Previously a boat house perched on the historic dock, now this Ephraim building is a gallery. But even though the exterior looks a little different these days, even the graffiti has a historic past!

Captains of the boats that would dock here wrote the boat names on the building. Now, layers upon layers of painted messages instead etch the names of human, instead of maritime, visitors.

For other fun graffiti destinations, you don’t want to miss Cadillac Ranch outside Amarillo, TX

Or the River Arts District of Asheville, NC!

My parents made the long journey from Arizona to be with us here for a very important reason: so we could celebrate my stepdad’s 80th Birthday together! Our final night together included his choice of filets on the grill, his favorite cream cheese bar dessert, and a rousing card game of Oh Hell! (which we competitively did NOT let him win, just because he is 80). He says he plans to live another 20 years, so cheers to that!

Before heading to Door County, we stopped in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and met up with Phoenix friends Keith and Nancy (both natives, who summer here), and also our very-own family FIP’s, my Uncle Brian and Aunt Dotty who came up from Chicago. Here we all are in Nancy’s parents’ farm den, experiencing the retro orange-drenched atmosphere and a true antique … the landline phone!

Manitowoc has been a mostly industry-and-manufacturing-based city located on the pristine coastline of Lake Michigan. As such, it has a maritime history and feel with beaches and marinas and lighthouses, as well as the Manitowoc River, which feeds into the Lake.

We’re always looking for great kayaking, but this particular round of kayaking included an unusual obstacle! See it right there in the middle?

That’s right, we’re kayaking up to, next to, and all around a submarine!

The sub is part of the nearby maritime museum, and the inside is available for touring. In fact, while we were cruising by, the tour guide appeared overhead and taunted us with a little song … “My boat is bigger than your boat, nah nah nah!”

Although kayaking a river is sometimes a challenge, the Manitowoc is a delight, because the effect of the lake pushing back into the river means the water is calm and mostly current-free, with lots of interesting scenery … a kayaker’s dream!

We transitioned from water to land with a private tour of a 800-cow working dairy farm, thanks to Nancy’s high school classmate’s brother, who graciously led us around his property and patiently answered the never-ending questions of this endlessly curious group.

You may have noticed our unusual footwear.

Did you know every cow generates 150 pounds of poop a day? Multiply times 800 cows and you quickly realize that you’ll want covered shoes!

This dairy farm milks cows three times a day, 24 hours a day.

Besides the dairy aspect, cows are also bred to have babies. We got to see this little fella, who was born just an hour earlier! All the “auntie” cows were stopping by to check on the new arrival.

Of particular fascination was the automation of a modern dairy. Each cow’s ear has an RFID tag that covers every aspect of the cow’s daily activities. It’s that white disk in the photo below.

For example, the baby cows stick their heads into the feeder, and the computer knows how much that cow has already eaten that day. If it has had enough food for the day, no food comes out! Wouldn’t this be a good addition to the human Weight Watchers program?

We also experienced the peculiar Wisconsin tradition known as a Supper Club. These are scattered throughout Wisconsin and are part of a centuries-old tradition.

My unofficial research (asking Nancy) reveals that supper clubs are only open at night (many only on weekend nights), have a separate bar area, have a salad bar (a surprise in this covid age), and for the most part, have patrons that go to their favorite supper club week after week for decades. You’re supposed to drink Old Fashioned’s and eat fried perch, though the menu has other options, too.

For our final morning together, we biked The Mariners’ Trail along Lake Michigan and the marina, and cherished time with friends and relatives we can never get enough of.

Our fast and furious fun in Door County and Manitowoc has come to an end, and so too the many fun adventures with this batch of family and friends. We must bid adieu to the “wild and winding roads” of this bucolic area.

We are leaving the quiet solitude of Door County for the “big city” of Green Bay, where we are eagerly anticipating immersion in “all things Packers,” including a behind-the-scenes tour of Lambeau Field, in anticipation of an exciting NFL season ahead! We’ve already decided we’ll surely return to Door County again!

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